Those with experience of attending previous Munich Security Conferences have described the mood of the 2018 conclave with terms like “retrenchment” and “hunkering down” and “waiting out the uncertainty.” A theme constantly repeated during the three-day gathering was that of the liberal world order under stress and threat, with a concurrent focus on the prospect of immediate flashpoints such as the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula and the likelihood of a conflict between Iran and its neighbors—both connected to questions about the depth and extent of American disengagement from global affairs. One concern, however, was that the conference was less engaged with how the world order and, more specifically, the transatlantic alliance, is set to evolve and change in the coming years.
Convening on the sidelines of the Munich conference, the Loisach Group met to assess this year’s conclave and to discuss what topics were left unaddressed that nevertheless will have a critical impact on the future cohesion of the Euro-Atlantic community.
Many of the U.S. participants, especially the congressional delegation, were emphatic in their efforts to reassure the audience of continuity in U.S. foreign policy. Left unspoken was whether the Trump administration should be seen as a temporary interruption in the U.S. commitment to maintaining the current international order, or whether the 2016 election was, in fact, a symptom that the United States stands at a point from which it is reassessing its preferred role in the world. It is clear that the United States is “renegotiating the terms of American engagement in the world,” but not so apparent whether Trump’s departure from the political scene would stop or reverse this process. In contrast to the expectations that the 2018 midterm or 2020 presidential elections will lay the basis for a “reset” of U.S. foreign policy (and thus all that America’s European and Asian partners need to do is wait for the cavalry), it may be more important to discuss the long-term trends that may change the role and scope of U.S. involvement in the world.